Catholics are natural allies in the struggle for environmental justice. As a Catholic, I have been most drawn to the example of St. Francis of Assisi, who is our tradition’s patron saint of the environment. St. Francis, who followed Jesus’ call to leave everything behind and live a life of intentional poverty and simplicity, lived in a medieval world where people, who had previously enjoyed a more intimate bond with their ecosystems, began to be disconnected from the land as a result of extensive land holdings owned and controlled by the small minority in the ruling class. This separation of people from the land, coupled with abuse of power, led to oppression and a class of poor deprived of their humanity and dignity.
Francis’ identification with the poor gradually brought him to an
understanding of his place as a “little brother” to all humanity and all
creation. His famous “Canticle of the Creatures,” which is the inspiration for Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’,
reveals how integrally interconnected St. Francis felt to all elements
of God’s creation. He came to see God reflected in all of creation and
therefore sought to maintain the integrity of all creation.
The essence of Franciscan spirituality, then, is a focus on seeing
God in everyone, especially the marginalized, and working toward
protecting the integrity of all creation. Therefore, by working to
maintain the integrity of all creation—with particular emphasis on the
poor, vulnerable, and those least responsible for environmental
degradation—Franciscan spirituality lends itself to a focus on
environmental and climate justice.
Through St. Francis’ commitment to following the convictions of his
faith, he consciously joined the “story of power,” which is the story of
humans and creation that also “includes a focus on the differences of
status, privilege, social class, levels of influence, wealth and
political and social power of various groups” (Franciscan Care for
Creation). This is the story that continues through the environmental
justice movement today.
Environmental justice communities have a unique perspective on the
ways in which consumer culture and differences in societal power
negatively affect the health of impacted communities. By tapping into
our own spiritual wells and joining the spiritual movement for climate
justice, we can help to bridge the knowledge and lived experience of
these communities with the moral clarity of our faith traditions –
thereby more effectively helping to ensure that policies and systems
prioritize the health of people and ecosystems, rather than business
By examining our own tradition’s religious teachings on the
environment and engaging in dialogue with congregations about our role
in causing harm to – or protecting the integrity of – creation, we are
lending our voices to the environmental justice movement. We are moving
ourselves and others into a new consciousness about how to live in unity
and harmony with the earth and one another.
Some of the ways Catholic congregations and other faith communities
are doing this include conducting energy audits of houses of worship,
converting to clean energy where possible, starting compost and garden
projects, divesting from fossil fuels, and advocating for better U.S.
climate policy. The Franciscan Action Network,
where I serve on the Board of Directors, is leading an interfaith
coalition working to get money out of politics and calling out members
of Congress who have been supportive of the Koch brothers’ “No Climate
Tax” pledge through a #KochvsPope campaign, among other actions.
Above all, we are promoting the concept of simple living, which
allows us to practice a life of ongoing conversion and provides lifelong
opportunities to live in right relationship with our world. Catholics
in the Franciscan tradition embrace an ecology that keeps humans and all
of creation out of harm’s way. It allows us to see the “thisness” – the
unique specialness of each particular living and nonliving thing – that
is characteristic of Franciscan spirituality.
Written for WE ACT for Environmental Justice, http://www.weact.org/member-blog-kelly-moltzen